Lang Lang: interview

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Chinese pianist Lang Lang is fast becoming the most famous classical musician in the world. Time Out tracks down the 26 year old to talk about his inspirations and plans to help other young musicians

  • Lang Lang: interview

    © Philip Glaser

  • In the past year alone, Lang Lang has, among other things, played at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, then hosted coverage of the games, played the BBC Proms, launched the Lang Lang International Music Foundation for young musicians, toured the world, recorded Chopin’s piano concertos and released an autobiography, including a version for children.

    But rather than taking a break, the enthusiastic performer has been ‘rehearsing like crazy’ as he visits London to take up residency at the Barbican for a week of concerts, which include the UK premiere of Tan Dun’s piano concerto ‘The Fire’ and Dragon Songs with traditional Chinese musicians. He will also host educational events, such as his Piano Extravaganza in which he will teach 100 young pianists to play Schubert’s ‘Marche Militaire’, and take part in a webcast.

    Lang Lang, however, takes it all in his stride, remaining ever laid back and courteous. He even manages to find time to relax; indeed, when I eventually track him down, he is in a beer garden in Nuremburg eating German sausage, though, as someone who ‘doesn’t really drink’, he has declined to wash it down with a large stein of lager.

    You have a great commitment to youth music education for someone so young.

    ‘Well, that’s a good thing, because when I talk about it they listen. I am closer to them than older pianists and they can talk to me more easily.’

    What is your motivation?

    ‘Because I was supported by the great musicians; they always gave me free tuition and I always had a full scholarship. I’m a lucky person and I think I should give something back.’

    The Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra is in town. Is there an equivalent to the scheme 'El Sistema' in China?

    ‘Yeah, we have incredible youth programmes in China. Currently there are 40 million kids learning piano and 90m kids learning other instruments. And we have so many student orchestras. In terms of classical music, China is coming fast.’

    What was it like playing at last year’s BBC Proms with your dad?

    ‘Really great. My father is a very good folk musician and we know each other well, so playing with him was very intimate… When I was a kid he put me under a lot of pressure; we had a very tough relationship.’

    Is he still critical of you?

    ‘Yeah, sure. But I like that he is critical now because it is good for me.’

    Does he also play the piano?

    ‘No… well, yeah, you could say, but he’s no good.’

    Describe composer Tan Dun’s piano concerto ‘The Fire’.

    ‘I have played it a few times. The good thing about playing with a living composer is that you can ask questions and make changes. The concerto is kind of a combination of fire and water, and for him to write a piano concerto was not easy because usually the composer needs to be able to play the piano well, like Beethoven, Mozart and Chopin – Tan Dun’s profession was percussion and violin. But I was happy with the result. We both really love martial arts, so I played him Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto and Bartók’s Second, which are the closest to martial arts in the piano literature. He listened to both and said that it was the way he would like to do it, too – with lots of fighting themes.’

    You have a strong bond with him?

    ‘I am very grateful; he was always very supportive in my career and has always been a very close friend.’

    Who are your favourite pianists?

    ‘Rubinstein and Horowitz, Argerich, Perahia, Barenboim, Brendel, Pletnev… their life stories inspire me.’

    What do they have in common?

    ‘They have all learned from someone who has a connection to the great composers. They have created their own world, based on tradition. I think that as the new generation of pianists we should do the same.’Lang Lang plays the Barbican Hall and LSO St Luke’s, April 18-26. See listings.

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